WW II, a British focus



 

 

     NORTHERN FRONT

It is no secret how straight continental roads are. As we progressed companies of Belgian soldiers came down the roads passing us presumably having been relieved. They had obviously been in action and waved cheerily as they passed, dirty and bedraggled. It was therefore quite natural to see another column approaching down the road in the distance but, as they drew nearer our column was halted and the oncoming column halted too. Whistles blew - they were bloody Germans! I must commend the quick reactions. The companies were run forward and spread out across the fields either side whilst H.Q., spreading out to the right and a little to the rear. Everyone that I could see lay as flat as pancakes waiting for whatever next. For myself, there was certainly a feeling of apprehension. I told myself that everything would be alright because we were British, weren't we?

As we had spread out, so had the Germans about 400 yards ahead. They were doing the same and manoeuvering what looked like a small cannon from the back of a vehicle into the middle of the road. They opened up first with some small mortars, then firing several bursts of small arms, jumped up, ran forward a few paces and down again and repeating the procedure. I reared up and had a look around to see that all the platoon well spaced out, not in a line but two or three deep. My God, what was required of me? Where was Crusty? We only had our rifles and the impression that every other German had a light machine gun. The tension broke when with whistles blowing and shouted instructions, the companies opened fire in reply with mortar and Bren guns. Jerry stayed flat to the ground and replied with mortars, some coming quite close. There was a gap in the hedge to my left through which Bren carriers came racing, turfing out boxes of ammunition to the companies out to our right.

It must seem extraordinary but, such was the nature of army discipline in peace time that I did not know if I had the authority to order the platoon to fire since we seemed neglected. Obviously we could not do nothing. Carefully raising myself up and looking round, I told them to fire at will. The result was electric. Like me, they’d desperately needed to do something and opened up with an enthusiasm that I had only seen back in England when we had target practice. True to form, there was Clack, normally such a quiet and docile character, setting to and apparently enjoying himself. 'Cpl. Durey', I turned to find Crusty had materialised behind, peering at me through a tuft of grass. 'Get them out of here and back to the village. There you will ensure all alcohol is destroyed. Then take up position in the corner house and wait there'. With that he withdrew and left me to it again. I passed the message around and we managed to wriggle our way back some distance and assemble in line along the hedgerow. In single file we made our way back to the village we had earlier come through.

It was more a small collection of cottages with an estaminet at a 'T' junction. Facing the top of the 'T' was a churchyard with the little church further along. We set to, smashing the bottles and emptying the barrels in the estaminet although I know more than one, particularly Dicky Bird, filled their water bottles, but I preferred not to see. In one cottage I found an old inlaid box, the kind one keeps documents or jewelry in. In it was some old yellowed paper money that appear to be occupation money from the first war. There was also an old rusted pistol that was still, in parts, chrome plated. It was a single shot thing with a hammer that came down onto a firing pin. The whole mechanism was rusted solid. I thought the pistol and paper money would make marvellous souvenirs so stowed them in my valise.

Having accomplished our task we withdrew to the corner cottage which was no more then two rooms on different levels. I declared the inner room to be the decontamination room although we had no blankets. I had no idea where our truck was with all our gear, and realised I had left my bloody bicycle in the field. There was only a small window that I had to stretch to see out of. The firing up the road was continuous and intense, but did not come closer. Suddenly there was the roar of a plane. It came right over the top of us. It was a reconnaissance plane. As I watched three men appeared and set up a Bren on a tripod and began firing at each approach. Then a young officer, who’d been in the churchyard fired his revolver from behind a tombstone, moving from one side to the other as the plane came and went. After a few minutes the plane didn’t return and the Bren crew and officer vanished.

It was evening before footsteps were heard outside. I saw Crusty and two other W.O'S turn into the junction. I opened the door and let him in. He asked if we had seen anyone, were we all there and had we had any rations? No, and apart from the bit of activity outside we had seen nobody. All the alcohol had been disposed of and the small room was the decontamination centre, but we had no gear. He withdrew to the inner room and stayed there for about an hour. Then he told me to send someone out to find H.Q., and tell them where we were and that we had no rations. I make a mistake, I asked for a volunteer. The men had all sank down into sitting positions around the walls. They looked ghastly and disheveled in the half light. My gaze passed over them. One by one, as I caught their eyes it was 'I'm married' or 'Why pick on me?' I turned to Crusty and said, 'Sir, I will go’ and undertook not to ask for a volunteer again. 'Go on then' he said, 'But your a bloody fool!'

I pushed my safety catch over and shoved a round up the breech and peered out of the window. Then, slowly opening the door, I found myself outside alone. There was no sound of firing now, but I had no idea which way to go. I had two choices away from the front. I crossed over the road and looked through the hedgerow across the field that occupied the opposite corner. I could see either smoke drifting or evening mist. I elected to go left since the field was on a higher level than the road and the bank offered some protection. I progressed about 500 yards before coming to a farmyard with trucks lined up under an open sided shelter with cooking going on between them.

Finding Francis, our driver was no problem. He directed me to the sergeant cook and I told him where we were. He assured me that rations would be along in half an hour or so. As I left I passed the C.O. and several officers gathered around a camp table covered with maps. I was shaken to see that his face as white as a ghost. I saluted and kept going.

Wondering why the C.O. looked so concerned I got out on to the road again and started back without hurrying. All was quiet now as darkness fell. If I hurried the clutter of my studded boots might have attracted unwelcome attention. Such reasoning was not to last long. That damned spotter plane returned and hurtled above my head. I heard it turning. There was a lone cottage on my right. I hurried to it to get out of sight, but the door was locked. Skipping around the back I dodged into the outside lavatory. I looked up as the plane roared overhead, only to get a clear view of it since there was no roof. I got back on to the road again and broke into a trot. I had not got far when a great fat pig burst out onto the road nearly knocking me over, no doubt frightened by the noise. I tried to pass it but it turned and ran in front of me as though I was chasing it. I ran faster whilst it zig-zagged at a remarkable turn of speed, but not as fast as I wanted to go. The roar of the engine was approaching again. I swore at it as though that might help, then in frustration brought my rifle up and shot the blasted pig through the rear end. Damn it, it kept going, and just as I lifted the bolt to put another round in the breech it nose-dived and came to a dead stop at my feet. The result was most undignified: I sailed over the top, landing on my back spread-eagled with my rifle skidding across the cobbles as the plane passed over, no more than, perhaps, 20 feet above me. Collecting myself painfully, but aware of the humour of the situation I completed the journey and reported that we had been overlooked. Rations would be along soon and there was a dead pig up the road if they could not wait.

It was well into the night when a dispatch rider pulled up outside and handed Crusty a message. We were to get out and fall in outside the churchyard straight away. There we found Francis with the truck and on the back of it was my bike that I had forgotten about. How it was recovered I will never know. I do know Crusty gave me one hell of a lecture about Government property and that I was never to let it out of my sight again. The driver, with all our gear had his own instructions. We were to tag on behind the rest of H.Q., already up front.

Dawn brought a shock. As though from nowhere, the road was thronged with refugees all heading south. Up till now we had seen no civilians. A story was circulating that the Germans had broken through the Maginot Line and were pouring into France, whilst we were falling back into prepared positions on the Gort Line. Where all the people, who looked mostly rural types had come from was irrelevant. The road was choked so army vehicles could not get through. The mass of people struggling along made it impossible with their burdens, carts and prams. A sea of humanity trying to escape, and us going the other way.

Keeping the platoon together was difficult but the regular tramping of studded boots on the cobbles did have some effect. Nevertheless, with all the refugees in front of us we soon became separated from the rest. We had been going for about three hours, perhaps, when planes could be heard. That was hardly surprising since there was a war on but the reality was terrifying.

Three planes swooped down along the road firing machine guns. Everyone scattered to the sides and threw themselves down. They could not get off the road because the hedges were too strong to break through. There were screams, crying and piteous whimpering. When the planes had gone people rose to their feet. Many lay dead or wounded. It seemed incomprehensible that this should happen when most of the people on the road were clearly civilians. But that was only the beginning. Twice more during the day they came back with the same horrifying effect. But people would not turn back, if that was the intention.

As night fell the military police directed us off the road to an assembly point. From there to a rail siding where we were to bivouac for the night to provide a guard on the line with special observation for parachutists. This was because Jerry was dropping men in British military police uniforms to misdirect and generally add to the confusion. The railway line was up on an embankment, and having established a routine of guard duties I found a section of corrugated iron that was curved. Setting myself up with a ground sheet and blanket, just to keep the dew off, I went on guard.

There were planes about and some ack-ack fire. It was tedious just lying up on the bank, my head level with the track peering either way until I saw two figures approaching. Keeping well down with rifle at the ready to challenge, they came close. Halt! I cried. 'I say, you must keep your head down better than that, I could have blown your head off over the last ten paces!' They were two officers whose faces were familiar. I shrank back and said nothing. I was relieved and went to crawl into my bivouac, but I could not raise my blanket. I discovered that a piece of shrapnel had come down right through my tin roof and embedded itself into the ground, pulling the blanket in with it. That could have been me! Well, lightening never strikes twice in the same place, so I made good and settled in somewhat shaken.

The next morning showed that we were on the edge of a town. The town square was full of an assortment of units not connected with us. A major reorganization seemed to be under way, but I was able to keep the platoon together. Whilst we waited, I noticed a young fresh faced lance corporal in what looked like a new uniform with divisional signs that were certainly not ours so, remembering about the fifth column business, I engaged him in conversation. He was looking for his unit, but whilst not saying which, was asking what some of the different divisional signs amongst the chaotic crowds represented. I said I did not know but some of my platoon might know if he cared to join me. We walked over to some of the platoon standing in a group. Macey was there, who I had made lance corporal in charge of the section Tich Fortune had vacated. I said 'Put this guy under arrest and take him to the guardroom, I think he’s a fifth columnist.' Rather startled, Macey reacted smartly enough without questions detailing two others to accompany him, and headed off in search of a guardroom if there was one. Anyway, they off loaded the character on to somebody and came back without him. I could have been wrong, but that’s how it was.

Now we were given a specific job to do. Francis had re-appeared with the truck loaded with the kind of mines I had earlier demonstrated. We were to follow up behind everyone including civilians who had now thinned out to a trickle. I was to ride ahead on my bike to the first junction or farmyard and search for, and take stock of, any materials suitable for obstructions. When the platoon caught up they were to assemble everything possible onto the road and arrange mines in discrete positions, then set them with detonators for anti-personnel. Dammit, we had had no training for anything like this, but I think we did rather well given the circumstances.

The next day we came to the outskirts of Brussels. There were markers to define our route, which we removed as we progressed. The empty streets offered no opportunity for barricades or obstructions so we kept going. For some time we had been alone with our mission, seeing nobody but the odd elderly civilian. From the sounds of combat following us it was evident that the main body of troops were well south of us. There were units engaging the Germans in rear-guard actions north of us or so it had seemed until a very excited Bartlet came running up saying he had seen Jerries cross the end of the street.

Instinctively I did not believe him. In the corner cottage he had burst out crying when the plane had first come over reconnoitering and I had taken some pleasure in slapping his face. Now the little whelp was acting like a child again. But it was true as a burst of light machine gun fire driving us into the doorways proved. We could see them peering around the corner and we fired back with our rifles. Soon grenades or light mortars came over the roof tops into the street and I yelled to run for it. We got out of that safely and continued at a trot. It was all day before we were out into the open country again and found Francis waiting for us with his truck, very relieved to see us. There was a lot of activity behind us but it sounded at a safe distance. It seemed that we should continue with our obstructions with the truck crawling whilst I did my bit on the bike.

Sounds of firing stopped at night so, with two at a time on guard, we were able to sleep in whatever shelter we could find and start again as soon as daylight came. Despite many difficulties with the refugees I ensured the routine continued until the 17th May when we came to a small town where the Royal Engineers were supervising the digging of slit trenches along the south side of a canal. There was a lock in the canal and it was evident arrangements were being made to blow it up. A senior officer asked who we were and I explained. He told me that we were now under his command and we soon found ourselves dispersed into the trenches among. Our situation was on open ground, on the other side of the canal facing us were tall warehouses with two roads coming down between to the path along that side.

We waited. Perhaps two hours passed, then we heard vehicles. It went quiet again until we heard knocking and banging. The source of this soon revealed itself when small holes began to appear in the walls of the warehouses. Light arms fire came from these openings and we kept our heads down wondering what was coming next. Then, with much shouting, the Germans appeared in strength in the two roads, rushing down to the water's edge and throwing in rubber boats. We were given orders to fire and opened up.

A number of the Jerries fell, some into the water, whilst the rest retreated out of view. A quarter of an hour later they made another attempt to cross the canal but were repelled in the same way. An hour passed, then all hell arrived. Suddenly there was the roar of aircraft as three dive-bombers screamed down with machine guns chattering and dropping clusters of small bombs. Someone had kept their head and shouted to fire at will before the planes had disappeared. Coming up, we could see that another attempt to get into the boats had been made. Their officers were using their pistols to drive their men on, firing into the air and pushing them. Two boats full of men sunk before they got half way across, although the distance was only about 20 yards. They had brought mortars into play now, but before they could get them properly sighted at such close range we heard the planes returning. All stopped whilst they did their work.

I became accustomed to Jerry and exchanging fire. It seemed so impersonal, but we were actually killing people. With the attacks from the air, we were pinned down and completely helpless. The affect on morale is devastating. As evening drew in information came that we were to get out as soon as darkness fell. I confess my greatest fright came when the Engineers blew the lock, with random wire snaking through the air landing across our trench. When we came out of there, crawling on our bellies in the darkness, I was a trembling wreck. We formed up and marched off into the night. I found myself separated from my scattered platoon, but was soon able to round them up. Then having explained our mission to the officer commanding, he instructed us to keep back and continue as before.